Little Red Riding Hood in the East End

Turning her back from drugs

Jane Woolfe

stock photoMy grasp has always exceeded my reach. I chastised myself bitterly when I 'dropped the balls.'

Drugs softened the pain.

Three years ago in the spring of 2003, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Initially I denied it. I couldn't accept the idea of being permanently 'damaged.' I would rather have had cancer. So I refused medication.

I loved the tumultuous ideas and endless flow of creative energy—staying up all night, plotting outrageous adventures and spending money I didn't have. I didn't want to miss the manic flurry, even if it meant enduring the darkness of depression.

Drugs helped.

I felt impervious to failure. The manic state gave me such a sense of self-righteousness that no human being could reach me. Superman must have known this state. It is very difficult to be around someone who is manic, because we are so mercurial; charming and entertaining one instant, then bitter and reproachful the next. Increasingly, I found myself on my own.

I turned to drugs.

I've always been a renegade, so I was game when a girlfriend took me down to the alleys of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It felt delicious and dangerous to use the little glass pipe, with a tiny white piece of crack cocaine magically melting into smoke.

My brain opened up like a clam shell.

Manic episodes fire up the neurons. Thoughts and ideas flourish in this rich, jungle-like environment. But smoking crack was like riding a rocket ship straight to the moon. Within a week I had my own connections in the Downtown Eastside.

I was hooked.

I got to know the alleys, the dealers and the other addicts. I came to feel safe within my new community. I met many captivating characters there: musicians, single parents, murderers, lawyers. All had compelling stories: sometimes hopeful, sometimes dark. These lives gone terribly wrong.

And, I had a new project.

I had been making films about the outdoors for years. So I decided to make one that honestly portrayed the people in the alleys of the Downtown Eastside. My days were spent getting high, getting my subjects high, and engaging in fascinating discussions about their dreams, their hopes, their troubles and their lives.

This had been my father's world.

He was raised on the east side of Vancouver. His father was a minister during the '30s, serving in the church mission at Hastings and Gore. My dad spent his youth running through the back alleys, peeping through windows, witnessing the gritty side of life. And, in a way, I saw myself as doing the same. He had died several years earlier. I was sure he was with me in spirit.

But I was just a tourist there.

I'm a middle class, middle-aged professional woman who is drawn to the dark side. A voyeur. A lost little girl.

I justified my addiction through the notion of using other people's stories to make a film. I was spinning myself a powerful bedtime story. One day, in my favourite alley at Abbot and Hastings, a police cruiser pulled to a stop in front of me. The constable rolled down the window and asked, "What are you doing here?" Without missing a beat I told him, "I'm making a film." He looked right through me and replied: "Go home. You don't belong here."

An addict can't hear the truth.

After one month everything began to unravel. I was asked to take a leave of absence from my job; my relationship was in serious trouble; my real friends were avoiding me; and some of my crackhead 'friends' stole my car and vandalized my apartment.

I found myself alone and penniless on a street corner.

I was coming down off crack, peaking off a manic period, feeling lost, lonely and terribly vulnerable. I finally took my psychiatrist's advice.

I checked myself into the psych ward at Vancouver General Hospital.

I was incarcerated there for three weeks. They put me on lithium and a cocktail of pharmaceutical drugs, and my moods settled. Therapy there consisted of waiting for meds and meals and cutting and pasting magazine pictures into collages.

If you were lucky, you smoked. It helped pass the time.

When I got out, I attended several drug rehab programs, but I continued to relapse. The drugs, the people and the alleys persistently drew me back in. They were more interesting and seductive than my 'real' life. Finally, I was admitted to a treatment centre. It had a lockstep approach to recovery. We got up at the same time, went for walks, participated in group therapy, ate together, did everything except go to the bathroom together.

I lasted for three weeks. Then I went into another manic phase, and oddly enough was let out on a weekend pass.

Like a moth to the flame, I went straight back to the Downtown Eastside.

Five days later I was, once again, alone, lost and out of drugs. The phone rang, it was my partner. He'd had enough. My lies, my relapses, my games. He didn't want to stand by and watch me throw my life away. He was leaving. I had no movie, no community, no friends and no drugs to numb the pain.

Addiction is like a hard surface that encases your brain, like an egg shell.

Life becomes all about getting your dope and doing anything necessary in order to feed that need. Lying, stealing, manipulating others are all part of the game. My partner's phone call gave me a little jolt and my thinking patterns were ruptured. Just enough to let a little light in. I didn't shatter, or fall apart. I just shifted, ever so gradually. I became willing to see that I was having a terrible impact on the people that loved me.

Something in me shifted.

The phone call wasn't dramatic or even highly emotional. It was final. My life would change because of it and I knew it. 'Bottoms' are personal moments. I didn't lose everything. Yet, this was the most significant relationship I had ever experienced. I had shared a life and adventures and dreams of a future with this man. And now it was over. That telephone call still has an impact on me today, almost two years later. His voice, so far away on the other end of the line, reached out and touched me. In leaving, he helped me to get free from myself.

It was like taking a breath.

In breaking open, some rays of hope were able to shine into my life. Slowly I began to move towards that light. My early recovery is foggy; my brain was still tinged with crack and depression. It took over eight months before the effects of crack were finally gone. Even though it was just in the fall of 2004 that I cracked, those dark days feel like a lifetime ago.

Like a coma patient, I stayed alive.

I sleepwalked through self-help programs and AA meetings. I did absorb some of the nutrients offered, heard fragments of the message. Gradually, the fog lifted. I began to glimpse pieces of the puzzle that were my life. Sometimes I even saw how the puzzle could fit back together.

These insights were precious.

Addiction is a cage.

Each bar of the cage was one of the beliefs I carried about myself; stemming from beyond memory. Initially drugs made me feel better about myself. I thought I was funnier, more intelligent and more creative when I got high. I began as a 12-year-old girl, trying to fit in with her friends. Eventually, I believed that I had to use drugs in order to stimulate my creativity, to relax, to have fun and ultimately to feel 'more myself.' Finally, I began using drugs to avoid facing my problems. When I smoked pot, problems at work or relationship issues seemed to take on a different perspective. These harbingers of my addiction preceded my crack use by four decades.

I had to work hard to take apart the cage of beliefs I had built.

Real acceptance was key in my recovery. I learned to truly accept, understand and appreciate my dual illnesses with the help from the Vancouver Coastal Health Dual Diagnosis Program. I enrolled in a day program and worked with a wonderful team of professionals. I came into their program feeling depressed and ashamed of myself. I left seven months later feeling strong and optimistic. I learned that my bipolar disorder comes with a tremendous responsibility. Like a mountaineer at the top of a steep slope, I must step a carefully through life. Each step I make must be attentive and purposeful. I now take my medications properly, get enough sleep, eat well and exercise. I'm finally learning how to manage myself and my illnesses effectively.

Mania no longer holds its sway over me.

I resisted taking prescription medication for close to two years, because I was afraid of the side effects. A drug addict being afraid of prescription drugs! But such contradictions make sense to me today. And I understand that I need to take my meds in order to stay stable. I still have my creative drive; and I can use it more effectively, focus it more powerfully when I'm balanced.

Today, I embrace my illnesses.

I've been able to piece a new life together and to recover healthy aspects of my former existence. I love my job again. The sports I used to struggle with now come much more easily and give me a great sense of personal reward. My relationships with friends and family are honest and meaningful. In accepting my illnesses, I've discovered their gifts. I am highly emotional, sometimes painfully so—it's like living without a skin. Drugs used to numb this sensitivity. Now I employ these insights in my work.

Emotions that used to run my life now inform me, but no longer control me.

Fellowship has also played a key role in my return to health. Fellowship is not 'fitting in' as I tried to do with my friends as a teenager, standing in a circle smoking pot or, more recently, watching for cops in the alleys while smoking crack.

I attend AA meetings because I've found a lost tribe.

I feel the drum beat. I share a sense of belonging. I've found a family of people who are serious about making a difference with their lives. I used to listen to the stories in the alleys; now I attend meetings to hear people tell stories about having transformed their lives.

I wouldn't trade my life.

I've learned such a tremendous amount about myself and others that in spite of the pain and damage I have caused, I would not go back and change what has happened.

My direction is clearer to me now.

Recently I drove back to the Downtown Eastside, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in all of Canada. I was with my mother, still active at 85 years old. We had a carload full of groceries, which we delivered to my grandfather's church mission at Hastings and Gore. On the way home, Main Street was blocked off, so we had to drive through the heart of the area, past my old haunts. I kept my eyes open, watched carefully, curious. But I didn't see anyone I knew. It felt strange and sad to be there again. The addicts seemed so painfully hurting and lost.

I no longer feel the need to travel those alleys, to cycle that dark magic. Addiction is a predictable, one-way, dead-end alley.

Today my journey is taking me elsewhere.


About the author

Jane is a practising artist who studied at Emily Carr School of Art and Design. She also studied at the Vancouver Film School and has worked on numerous films and has made many of her own outdoor productions. She works as a mountain guide and teaches rock climbing.